Unexplored potential of Community Radio in the North East
Intro: As on, November 2011, there were 121 functional community radio stations in India, of which the north-east operated only two. North-eastern States are in urgent need of this medium, writes PRIVAT GIRI for Media South Asia...
The prospect unlocked by the February 1995 landmark judgement of the Supreme Court that the airwaves or frequencies are public property, still seems to be awaiting recognition from the educational institutions, non-governmental organisations, and civil society in Sikkim and other north-eastern States.
The approval of the Community Radio Policy by the Government of India in December 2002 was a follow-up of this judgement. Initially, only the well-established educational institutions, including IITs/ IIMs, were eligible to get licences for setting up community radio stations. The matter has now been reconsidered and today all the non-profit organisations such as the civil society and voluntary organisations can apply for licence.
The liberation of radio technology in the public domain is the most crucial development in the history of radio broadcasting in India. The history of radio is older than the history of Independent India and since its early days, radio broadcasting has been a government enterprise fully controlled and managed by the Government of India. It is enthralling to ascertain that radio was introduced in India not by the government but by a handful of members of the British civilians during the late 1920s and early 1930s who promoted community listening systems on the rural outskirts of Lahore, Delhi, Peshawar, Madras, and Calcutta.
One of the most influential champions of rural development and community broadcasting was Frank Brayne. Brayne directed the powerful radio technology towards eliminating social ills of rural life, empowering women, and imparting education on health and hygiene. Unable to sustain under the expansionist policy of the government-controlled All India Radio, by 1937, all the operations were taken over by the government (then British). With their closure went the commitment of broadcasting towards development, participation, and social change. Though the idea of community broadcasting was short lived, it has set the basis for the future use of radio technology at the community level.
It is under this framework I argue that the initiative of the government to sanction frequencies at no cost to community radio programme is an opportunity revisited and a breakthrough in attaining those unfulfilled dreams of using radio for community development and social change. The community radio policy guidelines are specifically designed to involve the “community” in all aspects of management and programme production. It has an approach that is different from conventional broadcasting. Community radio’s fundamental priority is to give voice to the voiceless and make its audience the main hero.
So, where do Sikkim and other north-eastern States place themselves in this unexplored arena and how can they make use of this great technology? As on, November 2011, there are 121 functional community radio stations in India of which the north-east operates only two. Both these stations are based in Assam and are run by educational institutions, Gauhati University and Krishna Kanta Handique State Open University. In Sikkim, one NGO and Sikkim University have applied for a licence. The situation is more or less the same in the other north-eastern States. Tamil Nadu, with its 20 operational stations, has the highest number community radio stations.
The figures from the north-eastern States make one wonder why the non-profit organisations from this part of India are first from the bottom in the realm of community radio. The question also demands investigation to affirm how the community radio can be used here. In March, a three- day workshop on “Community Radio Awareness” was hosted in Sikkim by Sikkim University and organised by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India in collaboration with Commonwealth Education Media Centre for Asia. The workshop was in particular an exercise to orient the NGOs in Sikkim and the adjoining region, on the various aspects of community radio technology and its uses.
Although only a handful of NGOs attended the workshop in comparison to their huge presence, the major subject that concerned all those present was funding. The cost of establishing an ordinary radio station comes to around Rs. six lakh, and the government has no provision for funding a community radio project. However, in the context of north-Eastern States what is more severe than the crisis of funding is the reluctance and increasing dilemma among the concerned on how and where to direct this technology.
North-east India has been identified as one of the most vulnerable regions with regard to drug abuse and spread of HIV/AIDS besides domestic violence. The latest figures show 2114 HIV positives cases the seven north-eastern States, almost 91% in Manipur. Further, several studies have revealed inextricable connections among drug abuse, spread of AIDS, and domestic violence. Of the nearly two lakh IDUs (Intravenous Drug Users) in India, 50,800 are from Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and Meghalaya.
Gary Lewis, representative of United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, has reported that the issue of drug abuse and HIV/AIDS in the north-east region has reached “terrifying dimensions”, with Nagaland and Manipur showing strong links between drug abuse and HIV transmission. Experts from NACO have also held that HIV/AIDS epidemic in the north-eastern States is spread by intravenous drug-users who pass it on to their partners by way of unprotected sex.
Research by Equal Access, supported by the UN Trust Fund in Nepal, has found that HIV positive women are likely targets of violence and discrimination. To address this challenge and the link between violence against women and HIV, Samajhdari, a weekly grassroots radio programme, has been effectively broadcasting programmes highlighting the link between HIV and violence, and o informing the listeners, particularly women, on ways to stay safe.
The civil society, voluntary organisations, and NGOs in north-east should learn from the good experiences of the community radio programmes such as ‘Samajhdari and make use of radio technology for tackling the immediate concerns of society. There are also several other areas where community radio may be employed. North-east India is home to a multitude of conflicts ranging from separatist movements to inter-community, communal, and inter-ethnic conflicts emerging out of diverse outlook of its people and their culture. Such conflicts are halting the emancipation of society from all social odds and undermining the progress of the country. Against such backdrop, community radio can be used as a vehicle to facilitate and contribute in unification and integration of various stakeholders involved in the conflict, ultimately bringing the diverse communities towards peaceful co-existence.
North-east India is also seismically one of the six most active regions of the world, the other five being Mexico, Taiwan, California, Japan, and Turkey. It is placed in zone 5. The region has experienced 19 large-scale earthquakes including the great earthquakes of Shillong (1897), Assam-Tibet border (1950), and Sikkim (2011). The recent earthquake in Sikkim uncovered huge flaws in the formal disaster management institutions of the State and their inability to cope with the situation. Prof. Mahendra P Lama, Vice-Chancellor, Sikkim University, in an interview with The Hindu, said: “The robust system of community-based voluntary management of natural calamities, which remained the most pre-dominant phenomenon for centuries, is fast vanishing. The disaster management task has become government centric whereas traditionally it used to be essentially community centric.”
During such crises, community radio can serve as an alternative to the formal disaster management institutions and simultaneously help the affected people sustain and rebuild their community. It can facilitate people’s participation and also assist in restoring community-based voluntary management of natural calamities. WQRZ-LP, a non-profit low power FM radio station located in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, operating in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is an overwhelming example of such an exercise. It was successful in providing vital emergency communication – including information related to evacuation procedures, search and rescue operations, and distribution points for food and water, when other local media outlets had gone silent.
In addition, community radio can provide a platform to those individuals and groups, whose voices are often being marginalised by the profit-oriented commercial media enterprises, to express the distinctive needs and socio-political interests. Its colossal potential can be directed towards reflecting and promoting local culture, encouraging participation and democratic process, promoting development and social change, and good governance. This will contribute in the integration of the people of the north-east region with the rest of India. Likewise, the government should also assist the organisations concerned in the north-east in the process of establishing a community radio station by providing funds. If the government could commission 22 transmitters the 1982 Asian Games, which was seen as a prestigious event, it also becomes imperative on its part to support community radio which caters to the to diverse needs and interests of society.
[The writers is an MA student at Sikkim University. This article was originally posted by Media South Asia on its website, thehoot.org, and is reproduced here by arrangement with the writer]